The Problems with Converted Dwellings

The Problems with Converted Dwellings


Converted dwellings are proving to be an economical bonanza for some landlords. Granny flats, several complete apartments constructed within an existing single-family dwelling, are becoming more and more common as the number of elderly Americans is growing. These alternate forms of housing present some unique fire fighting problems. Interior layouts are completely different than “what they are suppose to be,’’ causing delays and complications in fire department operations.

THE FAIRFAX JOURNAL, a daily newspaper published in northern Virginia, recently featured two articles dealing with alternative forms of housing for elderly and handicapped persons. One of the articles discussed plans by the housing and re-development authority of a local county to lease a surplus elementary school and convert it into an apartment building for the elderly. The accompanying article concerned a decision by a local town council that cleared the way for the construction and use of “granny flats.” Granny flats are several complete apartments constructed within an existing single-family dwelling.

The continuing trend toward deinstitutionalizing the elderly and the handicapped, in combination with the fact that an increasing percentage of the population is growing old, make it likely that these types of residences will be more common. The fire protection implications of these actions, and others like them, are worthy of our careful consideration.

An elementary school as an apartment building

In the case of converting a two-story elementary school into an apartment building for elderly residents, it is important to consider that:

  • Any occupancy where elderly persons reside—especially in large numbers and in a relatively unsuper-
  • vised manner—poses a potentially severe life hazard. Elderly residents will occupy apartments—actually converted classrooms—on and above the second floor of the building (the first floor is already used as reception or recreation centers, kitchens, etc ).
  • School buildings typically have large open stairways, hallways and common ceiling spaces. Fire experience in schools seems to indicate that smoke and fire traveling in these arteries can be a major problem.
  • Despite good faith efforts by contractors, fire prevention officers and building code officials, these older, renovated buildings typically cannot be made as fire safe as new buildings constructed to modern codes. Additionally, older buildings are notorious for a greater number of problems caused by electrical and mechanical equipment malfunctions.
  • The building is to be renovated and operated under the auspices of a governmental agency. This in itself can pose problems. Governments often are better at enforcing regulations on other groups than on themselves. Additionally, governmental officials can be placed in compromising situations when they seek to enforce building or fire code regulations on their employers.

Granny flats: compounding the residential fire problem

The advent of granny flats can compound the residential fire problem:

  • A single-family dwelling, an occupancy that is not subject to extensive regulation or inspection, is now, by
  • nature of its conversion, becoming a multi-family occupancy. Accompanying this change in occupant load is a concurrent increase in life hazard. This increased life safety problem is further compounded by the fact that granny flats are occupied by elderly and handicapped persons.
  • Potential ignition sources are being increased, not only because of a greater occupant load but also because of the addition of a second kitchen and, in many cases, additional portable heating and cooking equipment.
  • The town council mandated that the granny flats in no way alter the exterior appearance of the dwellings in which they are located. This presents problems for fire officers who have traditionally relied on an exterior surveillance of a dwelling to determine its approximate interior layout and to develop a strategy for mounting an interior fire attack. In the case of the granny flat, it is likely that fire fighters will find an interior layout that is quite unique, completely different from that of a standard single-family dwelling. In short, nothing will seemingly be “where it is supposed to be.” This could cause delays in the fire department’s usually efficient response, sizeup, search, ventilation, and interior extinguishing operations.

Plan for action

Having identified the problems associated with alternative forms of housing for elderly and handicapped persons, we must formulate strategies for dealing with the associated problems. Recognizing that some broadbased department initiatives may be required, we can still implement several important strategies in the field:

Recognition. Awareness of the fact that alternative methods of housing are being devised for the elderly and handicapped must be kept in mind whenever approaching a fire in a residential occupancy or converted dwelling, such as a schoolhouse. This knowledge and awareness will help to reduce the possibility of being fooled by an unusual situation. In turn, this also should help fire fighters recover quickly and alter their plans if they are to control these unusual fire, search and rescue problems.

Pre-fire plan. Any building that houses large numbers of elderly and handicapped persons should be thoroughly pre-fire planned. Expanding on this concept somewhat, a pre-fire plan is more than completing a building survey sheet. A true pre-fire plan should be a carefully developed and rehearsed plan of action. The pre-fire plan highlights problems that are known to exist, and provides tactics for overcoming these difficulties. Additionally, when conducting pre-planning, it is essential to concentrate on the older, “out of the limelight” type of housing for the elderly and handicapped. All too often we concentrate our efforts on the newer, heavily protected occupancies in which modern codes and construction features have greatly lowered the life hazard.

Formal fire inspections. Hand in hand with good pre-fire planning is the aggressive, complete inspection of high life hazard occupancies. Inspections should be a thorough, comprehensive endeavor with emphasis placed on ensuring that the life safety systems meet or exceed established life safety regulations.

Fire officers must encourage rapid compliance on the part of the owners and operators of these occupancies. If this approach does not have immediate results, the fire marshal or another more potent enforcement agency with greater clout should be summoned to follow up.

Educate. Our pre-fire planning and inspection efforts should be complemented by educating the operating staff and residents of these occupancies. Instruction in the basics of fire prevention, evacuation, use of fire extinguishing appliances and equipment, and methods and theory of smoke control will help prevent a catastrophe.

In summary, with the increasing numbers of elderly persons in the population and the trend toward deinstitutionalizing of elderly and handicapped people, we must anticipate the development of alternative methods of housing these persons. Being conscious of these alternative methods of housing, the fire protection implications associated with them, coupled with aggressive and well thought out action before and during emergencies, are important factors in improving and maintaining quality fire protection for the community.

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